Cliff Caruthers’s ‘Bug’ Sound Design (San Francisco)

When the SF Playhouse shudders, physically, during its current run of the Tracy Letts play Bug, the source of that mix of noise and physical sensation isn’t the actors wandering around a creaky stage, or the audience shifting in their well-worn seats. It’s the thick buzzing sound that is used, along with the traditional blanketing darkness, to note the transition between scenes. I saw the play, directed by Jon Tracy, this past Friday, and was struck by the production’s use of sound, not just to move from one segment of the tautly told story to the next, but to fill each scene with a sense of place and, true to Bug‘s emphasis on surveillance and paranoia, of foreboding.

The entire play takes place in a single, seedy motel room. It tells the story of the quick and intense bonding of two emotionally damaged individuals: a single woman, whose ex-husband had been released from prison, and a younger man, who reveals deeper levels of paranoia with each confession. The title subject refers to both the insect and the listening device, and to the frightening idea of a combination thereof.

From the circling helicopters, to nearby Latin American techno, to an occasionally used boombox on the motel room floor, to the substandard air-conditioning unit that is so constant in its mechanical whir that it serves double duty as the play’s score, the sound in Bug is as much a part of the production as are the actors and the set. The sound in Bug isn’t just background; in a dramatic sense, it has a narrative agency all its own.

As it turns out, the sound design in the production, which runs through June 14, is by Cliff Caruthers, an accomplished locally based musician who’s performed at the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (where he is technical director), the San Francisco Tape Music Festival (where he is co-curator), and 964 Natoma (Aaron Ximm‘s former curatorial venue in San Francisco).

More on the production at

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